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The ski town where you don’t need to ski: This popular Austrian resort is full of wonders beyond the slopes

Panoramic views from the Bad Gastein suspension bridge  (Adam Batterbee)
Panoramic views from the Bad Gastein suspension bridge (Adam Batterbee)

As romantic views go – swirling steam over warm bubbling water, the sun setting over stately Habsburg villas and snow-capped mountains – it was hard to beat. Rooftop pools often promise more than they deliver, but the Grand Hotel Straubinger’s outdoor infinity pool in the centre of Bad Gastein didn’t disappoint. It even threw in views of the Hotel de l’Europe, said to be the inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Just below was Bad Gastein’s thundering waterfall, feeding some of the thermal springs that drew the 19th-century Habsburgs to this place of healing waters – just as it drew me and my knackered knee.

Why come to a ski resort if you’re still recovering from a ski injury that’s keeping you away from those much-missed pistes? Probably because hurtling down a mountain on a plank or two isn’t the only reason to be in the Austrian Alps, compelling reason though it is. And Bad Gastein, only 80 minutes south of Salzburg airport, has a life away from the slopes, which didn’t need two fully fit legs to explore.

The author mid-crossing on the Bad Gastein suspension bridge (Adam Batterbee)
The author mid-crossing on the Bad Gastein suspension bridge (Adam Batterbee)

First, though, the call of the mountains had to be answered. The cable car from Bad Gastein’s railway station led straight up to Stubnerkogel at 2,246 metres. Under bright blue skies I followed the snowy footpath to the observation deck and did a little jig of joy just to be breathing in that cold, crisp air and gazing at this stretch of the High Tauern mountains. On the other side of the cable car station, I walked along the 140 metre-long suspension bridge, which dangled 28 metres above the ground and offered more panoramic views.

It was getting close to that mid-morning hot chocolate time, and Bergstadl’s sunny terrace, a short distance from the cable car’s middle station, made an appealing spot to dive into thick velvety chocolate with its own mountain of whipped cream. Was I missing my skis? My mind said “Yes”, but my knee made it quite clear I wasn’t ready yet.

Forest bathing on a woodsy mountain walk above Bad Gastein (Adam Batterbee)
Forest bathing on a woodsy mountain walk above Bad Gastein (Adam Batterbee)

That left more of the simpler pleasures of the mountains to enjoy. In Argental a little further north in Gastein Valley, I was meeting Theresa Sommerbichler for a spot of forest bathing. Not, as it sounds, a dip in the freezing Schattbach running alongside the woods, but a slow, contemplative walk through the pines, breathing deeply, taking in every scent and sound, finishing the walk with Theresa’s refreshing spruce tea and feeling utterly relaxed. I usually do some snowshoeing on a ski trip (still a knee no-no, though), so this less strenuous woodsy walk was a welcome substitute.

Real bathing – the wallowing-in-thermal-springs sort – awaited me in Alpentherme in Bad Hofgastein further along the valley. This was definitely what I signed up for – a large complex of indoor and outdoor thermal pools, bubbling jets here and there, cold air making my cheeks glow while I gazed at the mountains. There was a similar set-up in Bad Gastein itself at the Felsentherme thermal baths near the railway station. Felsentherme’s brutalist architecture was a bit unexpected, and I didn’t find the layout of the pools as convenient as in Alpentherme. But at least they’re right in the town if you can’t be bothered with a 20-minute bus ride to Bad Hofgastein.

Glorious views from the rooftop pool of the Grand Hotel Straubinger (Adam Batterbee)
Glorious views from the rooftop pool of the Grand Hotel Straubinger (Adam Batterbee)

If this hadn’t been more than a flying visit, I could have tried a session in the Gastein Heilstollen, the so-called healing gallery deep in an underground chamber. Its radon gases are said to help with certain ailments, particularly if you have three to four treatments over a week. I weighed up spending most of a day doing something that probably would have little effect after a single treatment, or staying above ground lazily lunching and getting to know Bad Gastein. Lunch and sightseeing won.

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Bad Gastein’s hilly streets, filled with elaborate Belle Epoque architecture – designed as a home-from-home for visiting 19th-century nobility – revealed one wedding-cake confection after another. Some, including the Hotel de l’Europe, had been converted into flats and holiday rentals, while others sat empty but, curiously, not derelict, waiting for a buyer with deep enough pockets.

Luckily someone came along to wake the five-star Grand Hotel Straubinger from its 23-year slumber, and this immensely elegant grande dame reopened in September 2023. Its three-storey rooftop spa was as impressive as its Straubinger Saal restaurant, where creative four-course dinner menus featured standout dishes including lobster bisque and Barbary duck breast with a very moreish roasted celery cream.

The beautiful Grand Hotel Straubinger, Bad Gastein (Adam Batterbee)
The beautiful Grand Hotel Straubinger, Bad Gastein (Adam Batterbee)

Lunch, however, called for full-on Austrian mountain soul food. I was on the terrace at Kleine Scharte on Schlossalm, the 2,050-metre peak overlooking Bad Hofgastein, with a big plate of wonderfully gooey Käsespätzle (little dumplings smothered with melted cheese), a large Stiegl lager and clear sunny skies. I spotted a black puppy that was deliriously jumping in and out of the snow, full of the joys of winter. I could relate to that.

Travel essentials

How to get there

Salzburg is the nearest airport, which is served by Ryanair, British Airways, easyJet, Wizz Air and Jet2. Trains run from the city centre to Bad Gastein.

Where to stay

Grand Hotel Straubinger is well located in the centre of Bad Gastein, overlooking both the waterfall and Straubingerplatz square. It has a holistic spa with a rooftop infinity pool that boasts beautiful views, as well as a range of sauna facilities.

All hotel guests in Bad Gastein receive a Gastein Card, which gives free public transport among other things, including forest bathing.

Mary Novakovich was a guest of Bad Gastein and SalzburgerLand.